Stephen Daldry’s new Holocaust picture is the sort of film often released around this time of year; sobering, sweeping and punctuated by swooping violins and high strung ochestral music. And yet The Reader, although just half-successful, does feature a really sharp turn by Kate Winslet. It’s with brutal incisiveness that Winslet plays German Hanna Schmitz, a single woman who, in post-World War II Germany, strikes up a reckless, steamy affair with young Michael Berg. Winslet, who has proved herself not once but twice this year to be one of our finest actresses (she’s equally stunning in her performance as a late ‘50s housewife in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road), really sells us Daldry’s story; without her, the film would have likely floundered. She attacks our notions of what we think her character is and then counters with surprising subtlety, delving into Hanna’s history, and giving an overtly staid and uninteresting character significant depth.
The Reader, however complex it tries to be emotionally, is the simple story of Michael Berg, helped home one day by Winslet’s Hanna, and, returning to her in gratitude months later, surprised to find how strongly he’s attracted to her. Prompted by a bath he takes in Winslet’s apartment, the two begin to have an affair, one thing leads to another and an emotional dependency, at least for Michael, becomes apparent. Although he claims he loves her, we’re not quite certain she returns the favor, and after a summer, Hanna packs up her things and leaves unexpectedly. David Kross plays the unsuspecting victim of first love, 16-year-old Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes portrays the older Michael, later in the film), a somewhat naive, intelligent boy who reads to Winslet by candlelight. Kross plays Michael from 1958-66 with a boyish and precious approach that, although refreshing for a while, in the middle third, nosedives into over acting and uninteresting stoicism.
Kross is solid enough though; his thoughtful gazes and lustful emotion seethe with intense anger and frustration. And this is when Daldry’s film is at its best; a simple coming-of-age tale flaunting its two leads, and relying on the chemistry between them. It builds on a basic narrative about a first sexual encounter that recalls the repressive brilliance of last year’s Atonement (a much better film). Daldry’s production is at its peak in the first act, when it thrives on Winslet and Kross’ nuanced performances and David Hare’s beautifully specific script. And although The Reader is promoted as a “Stephen Daldry film” (a man, as of last Wednesday, with three academy award nominations to his name), the movie’s main flaws stem from the unhappy coincidences and sloppy execution that Daldry makes use of in those second and third acts, particularly the second, in which the film slows to a halt and drudges along in poorly paced courtroom scenes. Although it improves in the final stretch (thanks go to Fiennes, mostly), the movie still fails to build on its excellent beginnings and ultimately relies on contrivances to achieve some kind of fake emotional resonance.